To help sharpen my skills as a colorist, I’ve started regularly building looks inspired by films, tv shows, or music videos suggested by people on social media. To kick this off I’m looking at the color grading from Blade Runner 2049, and this footage feels essential so study. To round out the exercise, I like to break down what exactly I did to achieve this Blade Runner 2049 inspired color grading. Which is what you’re about to read here.
Stills of my Blade Runner 2049 Inspired Look
This grade was based on Denis Villeneuve’s 2017 science fiction film, Blade Runner 2049. This film has an absolutely fantastic neo-noir sci-fi look to it. Of course, with Roger Deakins responsible for the cinematography, and Mitch Paulson of Company 3 grading the film, you would expect nothing less. The cinematography and color palette of this film is top notch, which is part of why I wanted to take a closer look at it.
Of course, the sequel to Ridley Scott’s original Blade Runner sequel has a wide variety of unique looks throughout the film, but I’ve gone with the more blue-green and off-white look of the stills below.
Still of Ryan Gosling in Blade Runner 2049
One thing I noticed in some of the stills I studied, was Roger Deakins and his team’s ability to craft an incredible image – with plenty of visual contrast – where most of the information rests on the bottom half of the exposure spectrum. All of the images still maintained plenty of detail, but it creates a very delicate balance.
Both the saturation and exposure in the images were fairly subdued, but the images retain all the contrast needed to create a pleasing image. Additionally, many of the looks in this movie border on monochromatic, but again, maintain enough contrast and separation to create a great-looking image.
In my opinion, these are some of the characteristics that set great looks apart. Color grading footage to mimic Blade Runner 2049’s look would be difficult, but a great learning experience.
Exposure and Tone Curve
I started by adjusting exposure and creating a contrast curve for the image. When looking at the highlights I noticed that the top end of the image rolls off quite smoothly and is quite pulled down while still feeling natural for the environment. For this reason I made a point to shape the highlights in a way that smoothly rolled off.
Raw Image (left) vs Rec709 transform with contrast curve added (right)
Of course, without the same production design and intentional crafting of the image on set, I’m not going to get a perfect reproduction of the look’s exposure and contrast. But with anything, it’s best to pull inspiration instead of simply aiming for a 1:1 replicant.
When crafting the contrast curve I biased heavily towards the shadows, with a subtle knee and a long shoulder to roll off these highlights.
The majority of the saturation adjustments were done in the secondaries, with just a slight increase in overall saturation through the default color space transform. I’ll get into those adjustments in the “Secondary Adjustments” section below.
Lots of the heavy lifting was done with the RGB mixer for this look. This tool is something I have been learning more about, and I wanted to try and leverage it more to craft the DNF of the look at a macro level. Of course, secondaries could be used to create a similar look, but I feel the RGB mixer is going to be less destructive if done right.
Tone and Saturation Adjustments (left) vs RGB Mixer (Right)
To start, added more red to the red output to do just that – increase reds and balance out the subtractions I was about to make. I then subtracted red from the green and blue outputs. This effectively pushed the greens and blues in the image to a more cyan area, helping get that deep blue-green look the shadows have.
Additionally I removed some blue output from the red channel, and increased the blue output in the green and blue channel. Again – aiming to push the blues and greens into that deep blue-green realm.
Split Toning with the HDR Wheels
Finally, to round out the look, I added some split toning through the HDR Wheels tool. Keeping the default ranges for Davinci Wide Gamut, I added a slight yellow-orange tone to the highlights, and a bit more blue-green to the shadows.
RGB Mixer Adjustments (Left) vs Split Tone Adjustments (Right)
This yellow-orange push helped create some separation in the highlights and get that yellowish off-white look to the whites. The push in the shadows just added that little bit of extra depth to the blue-green that I feel is so distinct in the images.
Secondary Adjustments: HSL and Highlight Adjustments
After I’d built the look, the skin tones had shifted a bit from where I wanted them to be. In the HSL curves, I made a slight adjustment to the hue, saturation, and luminance of the orange hues. This helped shift the skin tones away from the yellowish hue the primary adjustments had given them.
I also made a slight increase to the midtone saturation in the image to help create a bit more of a pop to the image.
Lastly I went into the curves and added a bit of warmth back into the highlights. By going into the RGB curves, I added some red and subtracted blue to ever so slightly adjust the look of the highlights. This was the last piece to get me where I wanted to be for this Blade Runner 2049 color grading exercise.
Primary Adjustments (Left) vs Final Look after Secondary Adjustments (Right)
Node Tree for the Blade Runner 2049 inspired look
Key Takeaways For Blade Runner 2049’s Color Grading Study
When studying the color grading from Blade Runner 2049, the biggest piece of the puzzle felt like the RGB mixer. The RGB mixer is an incredibly powerful tool, and here I was only using it in a standard RGB-based color space to make adjustments. I feel the RGB mixer is one of those tools that has a tendency to be less destructive in the way it manipulates colors than some other tools. Additionally, as I’m learning to manipulate color in different color spaces this is a tool I’m going to have to revisit the more I learn about how it works.